Vast wilderness shaped by grazing and fire, offers delight & disaster
The green grass and wet winter tricked me.
On two January 2019 visits to the Mazatzal Wilderness, I was delighted by carpets of green on the mesas, pools and streams, and early spring flowers—results of a rainy late fall and winter in usually parched Arizona.
But April 2019 visit—maybe our last after hiking much of the area—offered the dark side of climate change and disturbance. That early winter “grass” probably was mostly non-native (and likely invasive), now mature seed heads that stuck to anything, requiring frequent stops to rid boots and socks of thorny seed heads. It often hid cairns (stone piles marking a trail). Streams had dried up. Unseasonably cool became unseasonably hot: with 100-degrees in Phoenix, we suffered sun-blistering 90-degrees on rocky wastes of the western Mazatzals. Cooler nights brought onslaught of whirring moths attacking headlamps—maybe from all the vegetation.
Perhaps a fitting end to our quest to explore Arizona’s oldest and largest national forest wilderness only 60 miles northeast of Phoenix. Marking the western skyline on Highway 87 from Mesa to Payson, the Mazatzals encompass rugged purple peaks, deep red rock canyons and rolling range country climbing from the Verde River to the 7000-foot divide. The name is thought to be an Aztec word for “place of the deer.” Classified a Forest Service “Primitive Area” in 1938, the Mazatzals were among wilderness designated in the original 1964 act. Elevations range from 2,100 feet near the Verde to 7,903 feet on Mazatzal Peak; vegetation includes Sonoran Desert shrub, semidesert grasslands, mountain shrubs, scattered pinion-juniper woodlands and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir—the latter mostly burned off in 2004 Willow Fire except for remnants in canyons and basins.
Between us, David and I have visited the Mazatzals 12 times, 10 of them together, and several before fires removed most of the large conifers and launched erosion cycles that continue to deteriorate trails. First trips were short visits over Christmas breaks while visiting family in the Southwest from other places we lived. In 2016 we returned permanently to the West and since we live part time in Phoenix during winters, spent some time exploring Mazatzals. This is a brief chronology of our visits, a brief note on two fires that drastically changed the area and hiking conditions, and a longer description of our last visit. Our latest five trips 2016-2019 are shown in detail on map with photos, campsites, mileages.
- 1977, April: Cindy’s first visit during senior year at UA; 20-mile day hike loop from east side, on mellow cool piney trails on Mazatzal Divide. She met many others escaping valley heat.
- 1980, December: We looped north from westside trails (probably started near Cornucopia Mine to Squaw Flat then west up to The Park and returned via Mazatzal Divide in snowstorm. Trails remembered as rough but passable.
- 1981, April: Out and back on Saddle Ridge Trail near Strawberry down to East Fork Verde and up to The Park and perhaps beyond.
- 1992, October: Short overnight loop to Mazatzal Divide from eastside.
- 2004, June: Lightning started Willow Fire that burned 187 square miles (119, 500 acres), came two miles short of Payson, threatened power lines and temporarily closed Highway 87.
- 2011, June: We tried to repeat Cindy’s 1977 day hike but found hot “moonscape” on top with a few remnant trees, heavy brush and washed out drainages. No other hikers in the shadeless burn.
- 2012, May: Sunflower Fire of 2012 started by a camper firing an incendiary round, burned more than 17,000 acres on the southeast/southwest and into the old burn.
- 2016, March: Used ‘car switch’ for 1-way via Deer Creek (off Highway 87), Arizona (AZT), and City Creek trails. Verdant newly cairned and brushed path on creek only to wilderness boundary. Drop-offs, washouts, thick vegetation (poorly placed large cairns) required extra day!
- 2017, March: David soloed repeat of 1980 trip on westside trails/ Divide (AZT); C had broken arm from trail running fall. Spring boxes brimming, Deadman and Wet Bottom creeks running, walls of wildflowers. Trails bad; wasted ½ day after missed junction. ‘Crawled’ up burned Upper Willow Tr to unmarked junction in burned Park. Amazed by corrals, spring developments, cairns and fences from earlier grazing era; but no cattle. (Not shown on map as repeated in 2018).
- 2017, March: We hiked road to LF Ranch (on East Verde near AZT), day hike up AZT to Saddle Mountain, back on AZT& City Creek. (Not on map as non-wilderness or in other trips )
- 2018, March: We redid/ extended range loop in a dry year; some springs dry. Trail deteriorated after nice new Sheep Creek sign at AZT junction at Shaw Flat. Met 2 pre-season hunters camped a couple miles above AZT, only hikers we have EVER seen on westside trails.
- 2019, January: Two westside range loop trips from Verde River: from Horseshoe Reservoir and from historic Sheep Bridge, mostly unburned range. Well-designed trails with big stone cairns, and range structures (Club Cabin ruins); plus water, grass and early flowers from wet fall/winter.
- 2019, April: After nice start for 2019, our last Mazatzal visit was not much fun.
We began at Twin Butte Trailhead near Strawberry for descent to Verde River and loop back to AZT on trails paralleling East Fork of Verde. Verde Trail was old rocky road, unpleasant to hike but easy to follow. Once on the river, we were off trail as much as on until we met the AZT—four days later, a day more than planned. We lost trail every time we hit high grass and couldn’t see the cairns and followed GPS track (based on USGS topographic maps), but it often deviated from actual trail, perhaps based on old maps never field checked. Other than first creek we met just before the Verde; all intermittent tributaries were dry. We used Verde for water.
The section up from the Verde River was slowest—and most dangerous. Trail sign showed Bull Spring eight miles (GPS recorded more than 12 miles). Although the trail was marked with large cairns at start, we lost it in the first flat and were off it most of the day; towards end following GPS on cairned route with thin tread, steep climbs and drops. Near day’s end, we were still miles from Bull Spring. On a sun-searing day, we ran out of water—unexpected because of earlier rainy months. No pools in the stream crossings. We tried cutting off prickly pear cactus pods and sucking on pulp after David peeled and clipped off thorns (with clippers used to clear trail). It left a sweet taste in the mouth and did not cure dryness. (We later learned this was one of better choices because fewer harmful acids and alkaloids than most cactus).
I lay down in shade of a mesquite while David went down the trail a quarter mile to the next intermittent stream, a tributary to Canyon Creek (dry where we crossed two days before). About an hour later he came back with two full water bottles. Revived, I followed him and my pack down to the drainage and two beautiful pools.
We camped on far side of canyon in waist high grass; next day partly followed cairns up a rocky ridge, past a stock tank and into a badly burned drainage and bushwhacked up other side through manzanita—and met old road into heavily burned Bull Canyon. Bull Trap Spring flowed below an old ranch “line shack” in oaks spared from the burn; Bull Spring box on up trail was full. Road clawed up out of the canyon, mellowed around side canyons and then gained a brushy ridge where we viewed AZT descending from the high divide in lazy switchbacks. No more trail finding. Next day a long climb from East Verde to our vehicle on Saddle Ridge (AZT) a trail we first hiked in the late 1980s. I don’t think I cared for it then, either. Rocky and beat out, very hot. But we had ample water, first from the East Verde and then from a long cool-off stop at White Rock Spring. For the first time in three years hiking the Mazatzals, we had the AZT all to ourselves. No through hikers. Perhaps too sensible to hike in late April.
AFTERWORD: Losing Legacy Trails on Westside of Mazatzals
The high divide of the Mazatzal Wilderness is known to many AZT thru-hikers on their way to either the Mexico or Utah as well as day hikers and overnight backpackers from eastside access trails. The westside is rarely visited; in 5 trips over about 5 weeks we only saw two other hikers and a few paddlers on Verde River. Trails are unmaintained, deteriorating and require trail-finding through skin-biting, clothes-shredding cacti, catclaw and spiny leaved evergreen oak. Yet there’s solitude and an incredible infrastructure of historic corrals, fences, spring-box developments and well-designed but faint trails from an earlier grazing era.
Although vegetative change from livestock grazing and recent reductions seems like an important theme in central Arizona mountains, we have found it hard to get information on Arizona range from university or management agencies. It seems range research stopped decades ago and agencies are too understaffed to provide public information.
One rancher told me there used to be about a dozen livestock operations in the Mazatzal Wilderness; we only observed cattle on the northern and southern ends. Although cattle grazing in the wilderness and perhaps ranches upstream along the Verde River may have been main culprits introducing invasive grasses that have replaced the native vegetation (and ironically are unpalatable to cattle once matured because of their sharp seed heads), grazing operators also maintained the trails, fences and spring developments, now falling into disrepair.
A few people love the western Mazatzals. Jacob Emerick, a Chandler, AZ software engineer, hiker and blogger, has hiked all known trail miles in the wilderness as of January 2019 and continues to revisit the challenging westside. (We may profile him in a future Heroes article if he agrees). John Matteson, AZT steward for the Mazatzals, wants to restore westside trails to be passable. The Arizona Trail Association which maintains the AZT, got grants and volunteers to restore the westside Red Hills Trail (from AZT down to Wet Bottom Creek). This year volunteers brushed upper Davenport Trail half mile down from Chilson Camp, Matteson said. (We couldn’t find the trail either at Chilson or its terminus at Club Cabin in past years.)
The Tonto National Forest, which administers the Mazatzal and popular Superstition wilderness, has little funding for trail work. Its recreation a staff works with grants and volunteers to mark and brush trails on this almost 3-million-acre forest, largest in Arizona and heavily impacted by urban recreationists. Much of the scarce staff time goes to managing recreation on heavily used lakes, developed campsites and off-road vehicle use/ trails. Part of this is societal priorities.
Federal agencies are underfunded yet saddled with unfunded mandates like Homeland Security. Most natural resource agency funding goes to fire management or suppression. Fire agencies spent $12 million on the Willow Fire—somewhat justified in protecting Payson—and $4.4 million on Sunflower Fire and post-fire attempted flood prevention. (Since trail maintenance costs are estimated from $2-$12,000 per mile depending on terrain and equipment, theoretically all 240 trail miles in the Mazatzal could be redone for $3 million!)
Congress funds and federal fire agencies support a system where large forces are convened and often millions spent to fight fires and some to prevent floods, but no funds or personnel are given the local unit to restore trails and facilities after the fire crews have left. A 20-person fire crew left in place for a few weeks after the fire could make a nice start restoring fire-damaged trails.
(Click upper right box above map to “view larger map” to see legend including NAVAGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up)